Michelle Bailat-Jones

Writer, Translator, Reader

Posts from the ‘Nadine Gordimer’ category

I am deeply saddened and angered – furious, I’m furious – by the world’s recent political events. I believe I filled my Twitter timeline with enough obscenities to get me through November 9th as the votes rolled in and the reactions occurred. I broke my “books only” Twitter rule that day and I will continue to break it unapologetically.

This experience has sent me directly back to Nadine Gordimer. If you’ve been reading this website for any amount of time, and especially back when I began it ten years ago, you’ll know that I’ve read and written about each of Gordimer’s fifteen novels. I did not examine then what sparked my interest in Gordimer’s work. I just loved her project – but now I think I understand why I felt such an urgency to read and re-read her work.

I grew up in the Pacific Northwest of the US, which is not known for its racial diversity – but I had the unique experience of attending elementary school in a majority black neighborhood. I was one of two white children in my 1st and 2nd grade classrooms. This was in Seattle, WA. When my family moved to Oregon, we lived in NE Portland, and I attended middle school and high school in schools which were fifty percent African-American. I’m so thankful that my parents never considered sending my sister and me to private schools. I’m so thankful for my urban, vibrant, sometimes rowdy public school education and the diversity of kids I grew up and learned alongside.

I experienced racial tensions, yes, but from the privileged white side of things, aware that there were things I did not understand and also, less consciously, that I did not need to understand. Fights in the halls. Students killed in shootings (One each year at my high school.) Racial divisions between student groups. My father is a retired Lutheran pastor, and his church when I was growing up sat at the edge of a black neighborhood and it worked with youth at-risk of joining the city’s gangs. He received death threats for performing gay marriages, and my sister and I were taught to walk outside on “condition yellow” after that. But many good things, too. He worked to develop a weekly evening jazz service with neighborhood musicians that was wildly successful and brought so many different cultures together, and it was really urban-style ministry with open doors and loads of inclusive programming. There is no perfect way to educate your children about issues of racial and social injustice and I’m sure my parents were as flawed as the next person in their approach sometimes, but I’m lucky my parents were committed to try. And although I have a lot of criticism for religion and am no longer a part of any church, I also see the good that open-minded communities of any motivation, faith or otherwise, can bring.

There is more to this story and it’s long and takes me to where I’ve ended up — living in Switzerland, and now holding Swiss nationality. What is interesting to me is thinking about the ways in which I remain connected to America. Like many emigrants, I have a complicated relationship with my country of origin (add to this the fact that I was born in Japan), but where I have remained passionately connected to the country is in the ongoing story of its racial issues. And I know this comes from growing up in the context I’ve just explained.

This is a long way of getting to why I am drawn to Gordimer’s work. She was white (I wrote “is” and am very sad to have had to correct that) and privileged, and yet her 60-year body of work is a deeply sincere engagement with what those two terms meant in the context of apartheid South Africa and its aftermath. She is an absolute inspiration to me, and not just from a technical craft perspective. There is no replacing the joy and responsibility of reading the works of writers of color as they create their art in response to their lived experiences, but alongside this, I find comfort in knowing that white writers can investigate these issues and make art from an honest position within their privileged experience. Gordimer provides a road map of sorts—and even if it isn’t the same country or the same time period, maps are endlessly fascinating in what they reveal.

I am genuinely curious if there is an equivalent white American writer – writing about race issues as honestly and as openly as Gordimer did, for such a long time and from the particular position that Gordimer takes? I can’t think of one, but there must be and maybe my brain is just mushy from all the awfulness of the last two days.

Because of recent events, I am drawn to re-read her first novel, The Lying Days, which was published in 1953. The South African National Party came to power in 1948 and first strengthened the racial segregation that already existed in the country, and then institutionalized it into apartheid. The last third of The Lying Days takes place in 1950, and I’d like to excerpt a passage, a long reflection by the novel’s narrator Helen who is grappling to understand what the new political system means. It is a little long but I find it frightfully prescient:

Nothing happened. Of course nothing happened. We wanted a quick shock, over and done with, but what we were going to get was something much slower, surer, and more terrible: an apparent sameness in the conduct of our lives, long periods when there was nothing more to hurt us than hard words in Parliament and talk of the Republic which we had laughed at for years; and, recurrently, a mounting number of weary battles—apartheid in the public transport and buildings, the ban on mixed marriages, the Suppression of Communism bill, the language ordinance separating Afrikaans and English-speaking children in schools, the removal of coloured voters from the common electoral roll and the setting aside of the Supreme Court judgment that made this act illegal—passionately debated in Parliament with the United Party and Labour Party forming the Opposition, inevitably lost to the Government before the first protest was spoken.

When the impact on individual, personal lives is not immediate and actual, political change does not affect the real happiness or unhappiness of people’s lives, though they may protest that it does. If the change of government throws you into a concentration camp, then your preoccupation with politics will equal that you might normally have had with your wife’s fidelity or your own health. But if your job is the same, your freedom of movement is the same, the outward appearance of your surroundings is the same, the heaviness lies only upon the extension of yourself which belongs to the world of abstract ideas, which, although it influences them through practical expression of moral convictions, loses, again and again, to the overwhelming tug of the warm and instinctual….

… it was only very slowly, as the months and then the years went by, that the moral climate of guilt and fear and oppression chilled through to the bone, almost as if the real climate of the elements had changed, the sun had turned away from South Africa, bringing about actual personality changes that affected even the most intimate conduct of their lives.

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For my book club this week, I got the chance to re-read Doris Lessing’s 1951 The Grass is Singing. It’s an extraordinary book—not only because of its thematic project, which is complicated and stands up to all sorts of varied interpretation and socio-historical analysis, but because her prose is somehow both utilitarian and majestic all at the same time. That word utilitarian is so ugly, I know, but I use it because Lessing is just such a competent writer. Nothing ever superfluous, and yet… she can be wonderfully, incredibly lyrical.

I marked out a long passage yesterday that struck me as symbolic of something Lessing is doing, quite cleverly, throughout the book:

In the early mornings, when Dick had gone to the lands, she would walk gently over the sandy soil in front of the house, looking up into the high blue dome that was fresh as ice crystals, a marvelous clear blue, with never a cloud to stain it, not for months and months. The cold of the night was still in the soil. She would lean down to touch it, and touched, too, the rough brick of the house, that was cool and damp against her fingers. Later, when it grew warm, and the sun seemed as hot as in summer, she would go out into the front and stand under a tree on the edge of the clearing (never far into the bush where she was afraid) and let the deep shade rest her. The thick olive-green leaves overhead let through chinks of clear blue, and the wind was sharp and cold. And then, suddenly, the whole sky lowered itself into a thick grey blanket, and for a few days it was a different world, with a soft dribble of rain, and it was really cold: so cold she wore a sweater and enjoyed the sensation of shivering inside it. But this never lasted long. It seemed that from one half hour to the next the heavy grey would grow thin, showing blue behind, and then the sky would seem to lift, with layers of dissolving cloud in the middle air; all at once, there would be a high blue sky again, all the grey curtains gone. The sunshine dazzled and glittered but held no menace; this was not the sun of October, that insidiously sapped from within. There was a lift in the air, an exhilaration. Mary felt healed – almost. Almost, she became as she had been, brisk and energetic, but with a caution in her face and in her movements that showed she had not forgotten the heat would return. She tenderly submitted herself to this miraculous three months of winter, when the country was purified of its menace.

All that underlining is mine, obviously, but these were all the places where I thought Lessing was doing something interesting. So many small elements in just one paragraph. If you read this paragraph quickly, I think you could mistake it for just a simple pause in an otherwise unsettling narrative. It feels like a break. Here is Mary (who is elsewhere in a state of constant stress and emotional breakdown), relaxing, feeling somehow at peace. And I suppose there is that. But there are warnings here too – those ice crystals, the mention of her ever-present fear of the bush, that shivering, which she oddly enjoys, and then the dazzling, glittering sun without menace. There are sharp points dotted all along this restful passage.

The repetition of the word menace struck me as well. And the way it becomes an extended, albeit sideways, discussion of “heat.” She never talks about desire, but the entire book is about the heat that seems to drive Mary crazy. And of course heat is another way of talking about desire, so I can’t help seeing that here too. Ultimately that last line, “when the country was purified of its menace,” is also about desire and about the exploration that Lessing has got going about the master/servant situation, and about the catastrophic “desire” that infuses the racial situation at the same time. I don’t mean desire in normal terms, but in the broken way that Lessing treats it. And it makes me think of one of the most incisive lines from another favorite of mine, Nadine Gordimer’s Occasion for Loving:

Every contact with whites was touched with intimacy; for even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart.

This is, I think, what drives all that marvelous (and by marvelous, I do mean horrific) subtext throughout The Grass is Singing. And Lessing never once forgets it. She puts it into the sky and the sun, and into the very landscape. Everything is intimate.

From the 1979/1980 Paris Review interview with Nadine Gordimer :

 

INTERVIEWER

You say that writers are androgynous. Do you recognize any difference between masculine and feminine writing, such as, say, Woolf’s versus Hemingway’s writing?

GORDIMER

Hemingway is such an extreme example, and his writing is really an instance of machismo, isn’t it? Henry James could have been a woman. E. M. Forster could have been. George Eliot could have been a man. I used to be too insistent on this point that there’s no sex in the brain; I’m less insistent now—perhaps I’m being influenced by the changing attitude of women toward themselves in general? I don’t think there’s anything that women writers don’t know. But it may be that there are certain aspects of life that they can deal with a shade better, just as I wonder whether any woman writer, however great, could have written the marvelous war scenes in War and Peace. By and large, I don’t think it matters a damn what sex a writer is, so long as the work is that of a real writer. I think there is such a thing as “ladies’ writing,” for instance, feminine writing; there are “authoresses” and “poetesses.” And there are men, like Hemingway, whose excessive “manliness” is a concomitant part of their writing. But with so many of the male writers whom I admire, it doesn’t matter too much. There doesn’t seem to be anything they don’t know, either. After all, look at Molly Bloom’s soliloquy. To me, that’s the ultimate proof of the ability of either sex to understand and convey the inner workings of the other. No woman was ever “written” better by a woman writer. How did Joyce know? God knows how, and it doesn’t matter.

Today at Necessary Fiction, I review Dana Johnson’s début novel, Elsewhere, California. Here is just a bit of what I had to say:

Avery understands the way that language works as a door between cultures because she’s been paying keen attention to speech patterns and the importance of words since she was a child. And Avery is a tester, interested in trying out words and phrases from other people—from Brenna’s poor, white and overly permissive family; from Joan, a kind and elderly white neighbor; from the young women of different cultures she meets in college; and even from her own family, those in California and those in Tennessee. To Avery, language is intricately bound with identity and so as Avery learns to speak several “languages,” her identity begins to crack and splinter.

This identity crisis begins young, and Johnson does a great job of showing the multitude of awareness moments in young Avery’s life, and the miniscule alignment choices that she makes, both with positive and negative repercussions, as she moves forward from child to adult and her world changes and shifts. There’s a complex negotiation going on here—who does Avery want to be? What are the boundaries to her identity and who or what has put those boundaries in place? Johnson doesn’t shy away from the more delicate questions of race and prejudice, and although the novel has what I would call a gentle narrative, it doesn’t pull its punches either.

My review says as much, but I really enjoyed this novel–its focus on language as well as the clarity and emotional complexity of Johnson’s writing.

Click here to read the entire review.

Elsewhere, California was an interesting book to read relatively close to Martha Southgate’s most recent book, The Taste of Salt, as well as one to consider against all my Gordimer reading, especially her latest, No Time Like the Present. In terms of The Taste of Salt and Elsewhere, California, both books deal with identity issues for African American women who have in some way left their working class or impoverished backgrounds behind, and both books deal with the protagonist’s relationship with a male relative who hasn’t been so lucky, a person the protagonist cares about but who also embarrasses and even frightens them. The main characters of these two novels are quite different, but the books share these general themes and it was interesting to compare how the authors handled similar ideas.

Gordimer is a different kind of writer than either Johnson or Southgate because she’s so often moving from the political to the emotional, and not the other way around. She’s also white, so that’s something else altogether. Regardless, both Southgate and Johnson take a more intimate approach, focusing their narrative on the interior life of a single character. No Time Like the Present is looking at similar issues really, especially the idea of a mixed culture marriage and the documentation of moments of prejudice in a society that is meant to be striving for equality between cultures.

 

 

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In 2008, I read all of Nadine Gordimer’s fourteen novels from start to finish. From her excellent début, The Lying Days (1953), to her 2005 novel Get A Life. (If you’re interested, here are the two wrap-up posts from that project, Wrap-up #1 and Wrap-up #2 and I think they serve as a good introduction to her work.) Reading someone start to finish is a hobby of mine, but Gordimer’s oeuvre is so big and diverse that it was a wonderfully satisfying project. It also gave me an appreciation for her writing, instead of what tends to get trumpeted more often, her message. Her latest novel, No Time Like the Present, just came out in March and I finally finished this rather grand, sweeping 421-page novel the other day.

I certainly don’t want to think that No Time Like the Present will be her last novel. At 88, she is incredibly sharp and has said that she continues to write. But if circumstances dictate that it is her last novel, a hundred years from now people may suggest that she planned it this way. More than any of her other post-Apartheid novels, this book will serve as a detailed document of the years between say 1991 (just before Apartheid was banned in 1994) and 2012.

The book is about a couple, Jabulile and Steve, who meet and fall in love while fighting against Apartheid. Being a mixed-culture couple, they are married in secret out of the country and live hidden for a few years in the country until 1994. When Apartheid is banned, their relationship becomes legal and their lives in this new independent situation begin. They have two children, Sindiswa and Gary Elias, and they both work jobs that give them power to affect change in the radically transforming South African society. Jabu is a lawyer and Steve a professor.

No Time Like the Present covers a lot of territory – it touches on so many subjects and so many issues of post-Apartheid society: violence, government corruption, poverty, immigration, continued racism. It looks at how Steve and Jabu must re-define their relationship that was once clandestine but is now accepted. It looks at how their children grow up in a society that now legally accepts their mixed-culture status. The second half of the book focuses on one particular issue—the brain drain. Steve begins to look at the possibility of moving to Australia, at the possibility of giving himself and his children a different sort of life.

That discussion is where the book generates a lot of power. (And where, as an expat myself, from a country that has its own set of difficult and frustrating social and political issues, I had my most personal reaction to the story Gordimer tells.) When a person has invested their young adulthood in a movement to better the society they live in, the idea of abandoning that society does not come easily. Both Steve and Jabu are disillusioned with the governmental corruption that ensues once Jacob Zuma becomes president, they are angry at the violence and poverty that explodes all over the nation. They are faced with the fact that no matter the laws, the capitalist system will effectively continue to segregate their society. Gordimer does a really excellent job of revealing the complications behind the desire for escape and the desire to stay behind to continue to fight.

Where No Time Like the Present disappointed me just a little is that I’ve always felt that Gordimer manages to effectively blend politics with personal. Even in Burger’s Daughter, which is not one of my favorites and one of her most overtly political, there are passages of writing, insights into complicated human emotion that rise above the rapid-fire political discussions that Gordimer has no qualms inserting into a book. A Guest of Honour is similar in that despite the diplomatic meetings and political cocktail parties, there are brilliant descriptions of life lived, of landscape, of rare human connection. She has an incredible talent for finding a description that unbalances a reader, that reveals something new.

And yet this was mostly missing in No Time Like the Present. If it’s possible for a book to be both dry and passionate, then this is the best description. The narrative is fast-paced and distanced, and it doesn’t ever, or very rarely, linger on the intangible parts of a story—the physical details of landscape and character, the strange observations of individuals within the story. Because of this, I ended up with the feeling that Steve and Jabu could have been any mixed-culture couple, that their children could have been any set of siblings from the new South Africa. And so their story, although interesting and filled with “event,” did not move me so much. I suppose the way Gordimer tells this story makes the book an important artifact, perhaps even an important literary artifact, but, for me at least, it didn’t make the book an excellent piece of fiction.

At her reading in London a few weeks ago, I was too shy to ask a question and I hadn’t yet finished the book anyway. But if I had the chance now, I would have loved to ask her why she used such a dash-over-everything narrative style and whether she knew she was sacrificing “story” for documentation. This must be something she considers—she is a fine writer, a powerful writer, most of her books have balanced this tricky problem with elegance. I’m thinking of The Conservationist and July’s People, The Pickup and My Son’s Story, for example. All novels that are powerful documents of a troubled society, but more than that, are examples of compelling and effective storytelling.

 

If you have been reading my blog for any amount of time you have probably noticed that one of my favorite writers, if not my all-time favorite writer, is Nadine Gordimer. Back in December I got word (hat tip to NOCA and Guilherme) that she would be giving a reading at Bloomsbury in London in March. After a little debate—okay, not much debate at all really, just some logistical negotiations for childcare and work schedule—I decided to buy a ticket and fly over for what was probably my only chance to attend a Gordimer reading. She turns 89 this year and she doesn’t often travel outside of South Africa.

The reading was Monday night and was held at the lovely Bloomsbury offices at Bedford Square. It was a very small gathering, not more than 50 people. I attended with two wonderful friends, who are also writers. Once inside, with our coats handed over, we were directed into a reception room for a glass of wine. Within seconds one of my friends turned to me and said, “She is sitting right over there. And you must absolutely go up to her right now.”

I hesitated. Because, first and foremost, that is what shy people do when faced with someone they admire very much. But also, it was very informal. It was not quite clear whether she was going to be signing books already before the reading, (of course, why else was she seated in this room with a little table in front of her?) and I’m just the kind of person who doesn’t want to bother anyone, doesn’t want to be that awkward person who speaks too loud or says something ridiculous. I’m sure I sputtered a few half-finished sentences that all started with, “Well, I’m not…” and “Maybe we shouldn’t…”

But thankfully my friends would have none of my silliness and we made our way over to Gordimer, got behind another would-be book signee and waited our turn. I gave her my copy of No Time Like the Present – her latest novel, and that came with tickets to the event – and managed to say a quiet, “Thank you,” once she’d signed, but that was it.

Until my friend stepped up, beaming and a little mischievous, and asked Gordimer whether she minded having her photograph taken with me. I was embarrassed, ridiculously so, but am now forever grateful to my outgoing friend. She also forced me to sit in the first row once we moved into the reading room, and hooray that she did; of course I chose the 2nd or 3rd row – because that is what shy people do. Instead, I got to sit for an hour just two feet away from Nadine Gordimer and watch her think and speak as she read and answered a series of questions.

I have admired, if not loved, each of her novels, and have read several many times. I’m now halfway through her fifteenth novel, No Time Like the Present, and while it will probably not become one of my favorites (like The House Gun, The Pickup, Occasion for Loving and My Son’s Story, for example), it is a very important work of fiction. It details contemporary, post-Apartheid South Africa by following a bi-cultural couple, married in secret just before Apartheid is dismantled. It is the story of their married life, their transformation from freedom fighters to legitimate couple and about their children who grow to maturity without the same constraints placed on the parents. It is a fiercely political novel and an intelligent work of fiction. I’ll be writing more about it when I finish.

On Monday evening, Gordimer introduced the novel, read a few pages and then answered questions. Watching her, I had to remind myself that she is 88 years old. She is incredibly sharp. Elegant and sure-spoken.

The nature of her fiction invites tangential political discussion, and this is something that I do enjoy, but our time with Gordimer was quite short and I would have loved being able to talk more about her fictional style. She has a unique narrative perspective that has developed in her writing over the years – the editor at Bloomsbury who moderated the evening called it “simultaneous narration.” She’s always had an absolutely sparkling first-person or omniscient narrator, but around, say, A Sport of Nature or None to Accompany Me (both published in the 90s), she started using a slightly different technique, a kind of layering of the close 3rd person. The perspective jumps from person to person, even sometimes within the same paragraph. It takes a little getting used to, but it gives her the ability to reveal what each character is thinking at any given moment.

Gordimer is often discussed in terms of the message or the content of her fiction, and understandably so, but I would love to read more (and to have heard more at the reading) discussions of her style. She has said on many occasions, and she repeated this on Monday, that she is not a “political writer” or any other combination of adjective and writer. She is simply a writer. In my (humble) opinion, she is too often overlooked for the way she portrays human feeling in any context, political or otherwise, as well as for the quality of and unique feel to her prose.

I’m still basking in the afterglow of my whirlwind trip to London and this reading. It was a small gathering, it was only an hour and a half, I was too shy to actually say anything to her except variations of “thank you,” but I feel very lucky to have actually met Nadine Gordimer after spending so many years reading, admiring, and thinking about her fiction.

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On Saturday I said there were two other articles I wanted to mention besides the wonderful Barnes piece from The London Review of Books. The first of these is a short, (nearly infuriatingly so) piece on Nadine Gordimer from The Guardian. The occasion of the article was a lecture she gave in England a few weeks ago, after which the journalist was able to ask her a few questions, and the subject was her life and her newest book, the complete collection of her non-fiction writings, Telling Times, Writing and Living, 1954 – 2008.

The article is worth a skim, especially if you are a fan of Gordimer like me, but it served more to remind me to start reading Telling Times. Which I did right away, and which is about as delightful as going through her fiction again. I like that I’ve read all of her fiction before now experiencing her non-fiction essays. I feel I have a sense of what she tried to accomplish through her literature, and I have judged and admired that on its merits, and so now I can go back and discover her personal voice.

I believe, although I could be wrong, that most people think of Gordimer as a strictly political writer. And so, in some sense, despite her Nobel Prize, despite her other awards and general prestige, her work actually gets overlooked by many readers who might be intimidated, or simply not interested, or putting it off for the right time. But I think that keeping her in such a strict classification is a gross mischaracterization of her work. Yes, all of her novels have some social-political element to them, that fact cannot be pushed aside, but they are all novels of people more than anything else.

In an essay from 1963 on how she came to writing, she says:

I was looking for what people meant but didn’t say, not only about sex, but also about politics and their relationship with the black people among whom we lived as people live in a forest among trees. So it was that I didn’t wake up to Africans and the shameful enormity of the colour bar through a youthful spell in the Communist Party, as did some of my contemporaries with whom I share the rejection of white supremacy, but through the apparently esoteric speleology of doubt, led by Kafka rather than Marx. And the ‘problems’ of my country did not set me writing; on the contrary, it was learning to write that sent me falling, falling through the surface of ‘the South African way of life’.

I loved reading these lines, especially the first and last sentence, because they confirm to me how Gordimer approaches writing. It is simply the essential fact of her existence, the first fact. Other facts have layered themselves around this first one, perhaps the greatest is having been born and raised in South Africa. But Gordimer would have written, and written superbly, had she come from anywhere else.

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It occurred to me last week that I’ve never posted on The Pickup by Nadine Gordimer. This was my third time reading this excellent book, and the reading experience reminded me of Nabokov’s quote about how we never really read a book, we can only re-read it. A first read is only an introduction, no matter how intense the experience, all subsequent reads push and then settle the acquaintance where it needs to go.

The Pickup is actually my very favorite Gordimer novel, which is saying something because I have high praise for each of her fourteen novels. But The Pickup is somehow a distillation of Gordimer’s style; it is both neat and untidy, both practical and reckless. The storyline repeats this dual tendency by being firmly contemporary yet at the same time a simple, traditional love story.

So let’s start with the story: The Pickup is the story of a relationship forged within the messiness of modern society. Julie meets Abdu when she takes her broken car into a garage in Johannesburg where he is working illegally. They begin an affair which becomes complicated when Abdu receives a deportation notice. Of course Julie wants him to stay, and of course Abdu does not want to return to his home country. They try various methods to keep him legally in South Africa and when everything fails, Julie shows up one evening with two tickets. She will go home with him. Home is an unnamed Muslim nation – the complete opposite from any life Julie has ever experienced.

The novel, as indicated by the title, flirts with the idea that one of these two has been a pickup for the other…Abdu needs residency, Julie needs adventure. Is one-half of this couple taking advantage of the other? Gordimer raises this question, yes, and in some ways, answers it, but this does not remain the central question. The Pickup goes on to explore the cultural and experiential differences between Julie and Abdu, and how they do find a connection. Julie’s integration into Abdu’s family home is a beautiful and respectful investigation of both sides of a huge cultural divide.

Finally, the ending…one of the most surprising endings I’ve ever read. And yet when you turn that last page, it isn’t really a surprise, it’s organic to the story and everything Gordimer has been revealing about Julie and Abdu. A surprise that is ultimately completely satisfying.

Stylistically, The Pickup is also my favorite. Mostly because of the omniscient narrator’s skill at personal and general revelation, but also because of the strange, slightly jarring way the narrator slips so casually in and out of Julie and Abdu’s (and several other characters’) minds. There isn’t a strong delineation between spoken word and thought, which creates an intense, contemplative atmosphere within the world of the novel. Delicately done. An excellent book.

Here is just a sample of the narrative style:

Not for her to speak those words; he heard them as she had heard them. Nothing for her to say; she knows nothing. That is true but he sees, feels, has revealed to him something he does not know: this foreign girl has for him – there are beautiful words for it coming to him in his mother tongue – devotion. How could anyone, man or woman, not want that? Devotion. Is it not natural to be loved? To accept a blessing. She knows something. Even if it comes out of ignorance, innocence of reality.

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Nadine Gordimer published her first novel, The Lying Days, in 1953. This book traces a young woman’s complicated journey from the ignorant bliss of her sheltered childhood to an adult’s understanding of her particular South African world and her place in it. I can’t help seeing The Lying Days as the most biographical of Gordimer’s novels – it isn’t about a writer, thankfully, but it does detail a psychological journey which strikes me as basic for someone destined to become a transformative political figure. So many different tensions to navigate: the struggle between wanting to fulfill the self but knowing that serving the greater community is more important, a relentless and exacting self-scrutiny, and the ability to turn that same scrutiny on society and not be blinded or deluded into ineffective or condescending action.

These same tensions then figure in her other novels and take on new depth depending on the context. The Lying Days is a strictly personal coming-of-age, both sexual and political, while her next novel takes up that same idea from an altered perspective. In The Lying Days, Helen is South African and finds her way to her self within a familiar landscape she must learn to see objectively, while Toby in A World of Strangers is a foreigner coming into South Africa who undergoes a similar realization from a different angle. This second novel goes further than the first by delving into the intracacies of a bi-cultural friendship.

This same theme then becomes even more powerful in her third novel, Occasion for Loving, which is about a bi-cultural love affair. It is in this novel that one of Gordimer’s fundamental ideas gets phrased for the first time.

Every contact with whites was touched with intimacy; for even the most casual belonged by definition to the conspiracy against keeping apart.

Here is something which will come back again and again in her work, in the relationships she creates which reflect South African society and later, in a more general way, which explore any ingrained system of cultural, political or gender-based separation.

The Late Bourgeois World goes further into the psychology of revolution, how a cause becomes both motivating and devastating for an individual, how that individual must fight to maintain a sense of self while accepting an equally powerful need to self-efface for the greater good. It is a short novella and very intense. For ninety pages, Gordimer holds a magnifying glass over one woman’s thoughts and experience, using those suddenly clear details to reveal a much larger story.

Her next novel, A Guest of Honour, takes up this same question of the individual within a larger system, although the magnifying glass is inverted to provide a vast, sweeping portrait of an entire country and its politics. Here, I think, Gordimer puts all her questions and attempted responses into a single, far-reaching framework – bicultural relationships, revolutionary psychology, objective political action, love (or lust) in a context of political turmoil, and social/political reconstruction.

At this point in her bibliography, history is already happening. The political system of apartheid is beginning to crumble. Her next two novels (The Conservationist and July’s People) capture that period of uncertainty and transition and distill it into a single emotion – fear. The upheaval of a political system can be seen in much the same way as a generational change and role reversal, both frightening experiences, and I think Gordimer integrates that feeling of heightened anxiety into her exploration of cultural differences.

So I’ve traced this link between her first six novels, and I could go on to include the next eight (but I won’t – no time), because I was curious to see how her thematic project moved from one book to the next. The six novels I’ve just outlined are quite different, both technically and in terms of story, but they are part of an ongoing discussion which Gordimer invites the reader to participate in each time he or she sits down and opens one of her books. Following that discussion has been one of the more rewarding aspects of reading her from start to finish this year. I have loved seeing how she opens a question in one book and then goes back to it in another, or then looks at it from another angle in a third. This is where fiction really shows its power, I think, in its ability to accommodate sustained discussion.

 

 

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I know, I know, I have assailed you with Nadine Gordimer for an entire year. But if you have the patience to stick with me for just one more week, I promise to mention her only when absolutely necessary for the next few years.

Sometime in 2007, I decided Gordimer was one of the writers I wanted to read from start to finish and I duly looked up all of her novels and ordered them or mooched them, setting aside a section of my overflowing shelves for her fourteen novels, and then last January, I plucked number one from the shelf and began what became an extremely rewarding journey through a succession of fictional worlds.

There are a number of doors I could open to begin with, points of entry for a Gordimer-centered discussion, but I think today I would like to talk about the intricacies of her writing style. More than anything, I read for the little stuff – the way a writer puts words together, the transitions and word choices, how the narrative threads and directs the story, how descriptions get built and then placed appropriately, how the writer animates a character.

I have mentioned before one of the more arresting aspects of Gordimer’s writing is her ability to capture, distill and convey an emotion or an observation. Across her fourteen novels, I was continually pulled up short by a line here or a paragraph there that managed to reflect some minute truth I wasn’t aware of until the way she expressed it made it all too clear.  Very often these moments were superfluous to the actual story in progress, and functioned like a kind of supportive netting cast delicately across the larger structure of the novel. This is something I find lacking in some contemporary fiction, as though writers are afraid nowadays to stray too far from the point.

Her earlier novels have a traditional narrative structure, but later she began making some interesting choices in narration. The Conservationist (1972), in particular, is one of the first to try something different. In that novel the narrator, Mehring, is not just telling his story, but he’s speaking to another character in the book. A character Gordimer never brings onto the page, so that our only experience with that person is through Mehring’s frustrated interior discourse. It’s an interesting technique which creates a kind of narrative layering, multiple voices within a singular narrative focus. She does this a second time in Burger’s Daughter (1979).

In The House Gun (1998) and The Pickup (2001), she writes simultaneously from the perspective of both halves of a married couple.  Exploring the two opposing/complementing sides of a couple is something she started doing as early as her third novel, Occasion for Loving (1963), but in her later novels the technique becomes much more refined, more subtle. And in many ways, more intimately reflective of the “unit” she’s describing. There are very few seams or spaces between each character’s thoughts, and Gordimer moves back and forth between Harald and Claudia or Julie and Ibrahim without any heavy guiding structure to “tell” us who is thinking what. The separation comes naturally, from their differing characters and voices.

I’ll finish today with some thoughts on how Gordimer handles description. She is skilled with corporeal presence in her writing, and knows how to give substance to her characters without resorting to unnecessary superficial tags. Instead, she gives them weight, shape, and movement. I think My Son’s Story (1990) showcases this particularly well, as so much of the book is wrapped up in exploring the physical differences of Sonny, William, and Hannah, as well as Sonny’s wife’s physical transformation. But even the smallest, most insignificant character in any Gordimer novel is unique and real and perfectly visible. It is almost infuriating how simple she makes it, a line detailing a nervous habit, a few words on the shape of a forearm, the exact description of someone’s laugh.

 

 

 

 

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